Janet Yellen's appointment is a triumph for feminism and for progressives

Unlike her monetarist predecessors, the first female chair of the Federal Reserve puts tackling unemployment on an equal footing with fighting inflation.

There seems to be a consensus that this has been a good and bad year for feminism. Well sisters, listen up, because it’s time to celebrate.  According to a Radio 4 profile by Mary Anne Sieghart, a woman is now the first or second most powerful person in the world (depending on the relative power you attribute to Angela Merkel). And the Atlantic has described her as the most powerful woman in American history.  

How’s that for progress? Let’s all raise a glass in congratulations to Janet Yellen, the first female chair of the US Federal Reserve. We should be clear: this is a major break-through. No woman in history has ever chaired any of the world’s leading domestic financial institutions. The Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bundesbank, the Fed: all men, for all of history. When her term begins in February, against that backdrop, there will be Janet.

Whatever your economic standpoint about the role of central bankers in the microeconomic challenges we all face – paying for the shopping, affording next year’s holiday – surely it matters that there is one less hallowed, powerful, lofty position for which women are yet to be deemed qualified? So what might we expect from the Fed’s new chair?

Yellen hails from an economic tradition that sees the economist’s role as deeply connected to the concerns of ordinary individuals, having gained her PhD with James Tobin at Yale. As President Obama said yesterday, "The American people will have a fierce champion who understands that the ultimate goal of economic and financial policymaking is to improve the lives, jobs and standard of living of American workers and their families."

The current incumbent, Ben Bernanke, is a monetarist, building on the foundations of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz. They see the role of government in the economy being to appropriately control the money supply to provide price stability. Inflation is the target, no matter what the impact on individuals within the economy.   

In contrast, Yellen is certainly a progressive. She chaired Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers late in his term of office. Her critics from the left might argue that Wall Street’s apparent ease and, in some quarters, enthusiasm for Yellen’s appointment does not augur well for a tougher approach to regulation, though this probably stems as much from Yellen being a known actor already within the Fed, as opposed to a Fed outsider choice such as Larry Summers. But as we’ve seen with George Osborne’s approach to financial services regulation, and his defence of the bonus culture, the battle for a well-regulated global financial services industry is far from won.

As a highly distinguished labour market economist, Yellen authored work on the interplay between wage rates, unemployment, and what we might now term underemployment. Of course, this is now a major challenge in the US and European economies. At the Fed itself, she has been successful in placing unemployment on an equal footing with fighting inflation as a macro-economic target. And according to Time magazine, she’s a numbers person, setting high regard for evidence over orthodoxy. And when the orthodoxy has so conclusively failed, surely change is a good thing.  

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South, shadow minister for international development, and studied economics at Birkbeck College

Janet Yellen testifies during her confirmation hearing November 14, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South and the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria. 

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.